Escalation Tactic by Don Pendleton by Don Pendleton - Read Online

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Escalation Tactic - Don Pendleton

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EPILOGUE

PROLOGUE

The setting was one of peace and tranquility, moderated partially by decor that some might say pushed the envelope between good taste and gaudy. But, regardless of whether one viewed the trappings as classical or garish, they were about to be destroyed.

The wedding was elaborate in a way in which only wealthy members of an underdeveloped country could execute such an event. Although she hadn’t yet made her appearance, most of the men and women in attendance knew that the bride would be wearing a gown that would have cost ten Mexican laborers a lifetime of wages. The maid of honor would be decorated almost as expensively, with the dresses of the ten bridesmaids falling only a few pesos short of that.

The husband-to-be, the best man and the groomsmen and ushers wore the latest Parisian tuxedos, which had been recently featured in GQ. Even the flower girl’s and ring bearer’s clothing could have fed a Mexican family of twelve for a month.

The priest officiating the wedding stood on the steps leading up to the stage, looking more like a Latino fashion model than a member of the clergy. His was obviously a wealthy parish, and his parishioners would have never stood for a spiritual leader who reflected poverty.

Red carpets had been rolled down the aisles of the cathedral, and all in attendance—be they friends and family of the bride or groom—stepped carefully on them as the ushers escorted the female guests to their seats with their menfolk following. Candles, set in elaborate gold-and-silver holders mounted to the walls and behind the pulpit, had been lit by young men wearing pristine white robes. More candles burned behind the choir loft, which was filled with men and women spouting eerie and mysterious Gregorian chants as the congregation continued to file into the building. The windows on both sides of the room were of the finest stained glass, with some of them reflecting angels, billowy clouds, a benevolent God on His throne with Christ seated next to Him, and an overall message of the utopia that awaited the saved in heaven.

Finally, when all the guests had been seated, the organist began to play and the bridesmaids and maid of honor strode purposely down the center aisle, followed by the bride. The groomsmen and best man—led by the groom—appeared through a door just to the side of the stage. In addition to their black, Edwardian-cut tuxedos, all wore tremendous smiles, and it became clear to everyone seated in the grand cathedral that neither bride nor groom suffered from cold feet or second thoughts.

Just before the mass was to begin, the doors at the rear of the church suddenly burst open. A heartbeat later a dozen submachine guns fired in unison.

Nobody move! shouted a man wearing black army fatigues and a matching ski mask as the other men—dressed identically—raced down the aisles. Those in the congregation who had the presence of mind to look over their shoulders saw that more men in modern ninja attire had followed their leaders and now took up guard duty at the doors.

Within the space of five seconds, the church was sealed off and the entire congregation and wedding party had been taken hostage.

The men and women seated in the pews who had thought the wedding was the ultimate in taste dismissed such thoughts. As did the others who had secretly believed the show had crossed the line of class and wallowed in vulgarity.

The man who had spoken earlier now fired a burst into the ceiling of the hallowed room. As soon as the noise died down, he barked out more orders in Spanish. Everyone! On the ground!

The people in the pews stood frozen for a moment, and this seemed to irritate the gunman. When he fired this time, he aimed just over their heads. Down, I said! he yelled.

This shook the stunned congregation back into reality and most dropped to the floor between the pews. A few were obviously too slow for the masked man now in charge, and his next burst of fire struck a half-dozen men and women in the chests and heads, sending crimson blood, skull fragments and body tissue flying.

As soon as everyone was down—one way or another—the leader of the masked men nodded toward several of his cohorts. Immediately, the intruders began to walk up and down the aisles, occasionally pulling the triggers of their subguns and creating screams and moans of agony. Other times, they stopped, shouting for someone to turn toward them so they could see their victim’s face. More often than not when this happened, the face brought on another burst of rounds and more flying blood.

On several occasions, however, after the faces had turned toward the gunmen, there seemed to be some question as to whether they had been predestined to die, then and there. When that happened, the assassins in black called out to their leader—the man who had first ordered everyone to the floor between the pews. He obviously held the final power over life and death and, each time he was summoned, he hurried over to scrutinize the people in question. Then a simple nod brought on a machine-gun obliteration of that face, or a short shake of the head became the captive’s salvation and the cold-blooded killers moved on.

Finally, the entire congregation had been scrutinized, and the masked leader looked down to his side where the bride and groom had been forced to half sit, half lie on the steps leading up to the platform. Shifting his weapon to his left hand, he reached down, took the bride’s hand and lifted her gently to her feet. Still holding the terrified young woman’s hand in his, his eyes moved to the groom.

Stand up, he growled in a low, menacing voice. You are coming with us.

The groom did as ordered.

Turning back to face the crowd, the masked leader looked down the red carpet covering the center aisle to where two of his men now held four men from the congregation. All were Hispanics, and their faces had turned a sick-looking gray as they stood with their hands behind their backs. One of the captives stood slightly sideways to the front of the cathedral, and the masked leader saw the glint of steel handcuffs under the overhead lights. He nodded, more to himself than to his men, then pulled his own set of cuffs from a rear pocket of his black fatigues.

A moment later, the groom, too, was cuffed behind his back.

Forward! the man in the ski mask ordered the two, and the bride began to retrace her steps down the red carpet. The groom fell in behind. They had gone only a few steps before the nervous groom accidentally stepped on his bride-to-be’s train and both almost fell.

The leader of the masked men cursed under his breath and ordered them to halt. In one smooth motion, he pulled a seven-inch fighting knife from the sheath on his hip and began slicing through the bride’s train. After several cuts, the cloth lay on the floor looking almost as dead as the people lying still between the pews.

The party moved up the aisle to join the other black-clad, ski-masked men and their prisoners. Then the intruders surrounded their captives and began to leave. The leader was the last to exit, and just before he did, he turned back toward the pews.

Those of you who still live, he shouted out. You will carry the story of what has happened here with you to any members of the Morales family who were not in attendance. You will tell them that times have changed. No longer will the Morales Cartel have a monopoly on the drugs and other goods that are shipped north of the Rio Grande. And you will tell them that this— he waved a hand around the room, indicating the bloody mess in the aisles and between the pews —is what will happen to any of them who stand in my way.

The crowd had grown perfectly silent as he spoke. And they remained so as the masked man finally turned and left.

By the time he had walked down the steps in the front of the church, his men and the hostages were loaded in six vans. Striding purposefully to the van at the front of the convoy, he opened the front passenger’s door and stepped up into the seat. The ski mask remained on his face until they were several blocks from the church.

When he finally pulled the mask from his head, he smiled. The operation had gone well. In one fatal swoop, he had eliminated a significant number of the Morales Cartel leaders. Not all of them by any means, but he had not wanted to completely destroy the organization. He wanted only to diminish their power to the point where they could still operate but would need his assistance to do so.

The smile slowly turned into a frown. His only real regret was that the top man of the cartel, Don Pancho Morales, had been absent from the wedding. An elderly man in his early eighties with a failing heart and pacemaker, Don Pancho, as he was often called, had been rushed to the hospital while dressing for the occasion.

By the time the wedding was about to begin, however, word had reached the church that the heart attack had been nothing more than indigestion. The Don was recovering nicely, but he wouldn’t be attending the ceremony.

As the van convoy drove on, the leader of the attack nodded to himself. His master plan would have gone faster and more smoothly had he been able to kill Don Pancho at the church. And had he learned that the old man would not be in attendance, he would have altered his plans, waiting for another family occasion when the Don would have been present. But while missing the head of the Morales Cartel was a disappointment, he had taken out many of the other top-ranking family figures.

And he had spread terror through the hearts of those he’d left alive. The survivors would spread the word that the assault had been performed by the new group of mercenary drug runners rumored to be setting up shop and ready to steal the Morales’s business away from them.

A victory by any standards. The smile returned to the man’s face. Yes, they would realize this could have been done by no other group than the encroachers who were said to be made up of ex-military and ex-police officers from both Mexico and the United States.

But they wouldn’t know the leader’s identity.

Now, with the mask in his lap and the convoy speeding down the street toward the highway, the man sat back in his seat and smiled contentedly.

CHAPTER ONE

The last 9 mm magazine for Mack Bolan’s Heckler & Koch MP-5 submachine gun had run dry minutes earlier, and he had relied on the sound-suppressed Beretta 93-R ever since. But a pistol—even a machine pistol with 3-round-burst capability such as the Beretta—was hardly the best choice of firepower for the situation in which he found himself.

Bolan, aka the Executioner, let up on the trigger of the 93-R for a moment, taking in his surroundings. He had dropped into a crevice in the rocks, on the side of a mountain in a range he couldn’t name. Rifle fire—from the guns of enemies hiding behind boulders and in other crevices over a hundred yards away—continued to pound the rocks above his head and to his sides.

A strange fog also surrounded him, but it didn’t seem to be the billowy whiteness from the clouds; they were still too high over the mountains to interfere with his vision. This fog was more of an indefinable, ethereal mist. And somehow, Bolan knew the murky smoke was in his mind rather than outside him, and in sight.

Returning his attention to the fight, Bolan wondered briefly who the enemy was. He didn’t know. The only thing he knew was that they were enemies of America and all nations of the free world.

Otherwise, he knew he wouldn’t be fighting them.

Bolan spotted the head and one shoulder of a man sticking out from behind a boulder far in the distance. The black silhouette of an AK-47 assault rifle was recoiling in the man’s hands, and bullets ricocheted off the rocks next to the crevice. Pebbles and powdered rock dropped over the Executioner’s head to join the strange mist.

The Executioner lined up the 93-R’s front and rear sights on a spot an inch above the man’s head, then lightly squeezed the trigger.

The semijacketed, subsonic 9 mm hollowpoint round arched ever so slightly as it traversed the space between the two men, then fell against the AK-47 itself and flattened as it slid along the rifle’s rail. Even in the daylight, sparks could be seen as the copper jacket struck steel, and by the time the bullet left the rifle to penetrate the chest of the man with the Russian weapon it had expanded to almost a full inch of warped and twisted copper and lead.

Even at that distance, Bolan heard the man scream as he fell to his side, away from the boulder that had only partially shielded him.

It was the last round in the first magazine of the Beretta, and the slide locked open. Bolan thumbed the release button, letting the magazine fall to the ground. A split second later, he had jerked a fresh 15-round load from the Kydex magazine caddie under the right side of his shoulder rig and jammed it into the butt of the 93-R. Return fire continued to force him to stay low in the crevice as he thumbed the slide release to chamber the first of the new rounds.

The mysterious mist still surrounded him, interfering with his vision and giving his whole predicament an otherworldly feel. But the Executioner was used to having to improvise during battle. He had fought thousands of them, and no two had ever been quite the same. So, with a deep breath as he moved the selector switch to 3-round-burst mode and pulled down the folding front grip of the Beretta, he rose slightly and fired three more 9 mm rounds at the rocks across from him.

The rounds hadn’t been meant to hit anyone. They had been fired to create reaction—movement—on the parts of the enemies who were now better armed than he. And the ploy worked. Seven heads jerked back behind cover.

Bolan made note in his mind where each man had hidden. He knew he was taking a chance by not retreating into his own depression in the rocks, but he stayed where he was, the machine pistol still held in both hands at arm’s length. Taking chances—calculated risks—was what combat was all about. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. And Mack Bolan hadn’t survived his long career battling evil in all its forms by being timid.

Seconds later, another AK-47 nosed around a tree growing at an awkward angle out of the rocks. A face slowly followed.

Aiming slightly high once more because of the distance, Bolan sent a triple-tap of 9 mm rounds across the long expanse. At least one of the jacketed missiles found the face of the enemy, and the Executioner heard another low moan as the AK-47 fell from the man’s hands and tumbled down the side of the mountain.

Four more of the gunners made similar mistakes, and Bolan took them out one by one. But in doing so, he emptied his second magazine and was forced to insert the last one.

Switching the selector to single shot to conserve ammo, Bolan hunkered down lower between the rocks as a new bombardment of fire chipped away at the stone just above him. One tiny chip flew into his eye but he got it out quickly and easily. Once again, he wondered at the strange mist that surrounded him. It gave him the impression that something about this gunfight was, indeed, far different than any he had ever experienced before. But there was little time to ponder the thought.

The explosions that had been coming from over a hundred yards away were getting louder. That meant the men trying to kill him were moving toward him.

The Executioner raised his head slightly, checking all directions. To his left was the flat side of the mountain itself. Without climbing equipment, there would be no escape in that direction. And even if he had the ropes and other gear necessary to traverse the face, he would be exposed like a fly on the wall, and the gunners’ rifles would be far faster and more accurate than any flyswatter ever could be. He might as well paint a bull’s-eye on his back if he chose that route of escape.

To his right, and rear, were drop-offs. Behind him was at least a five-hundred-foot fall. To his side it was at least one hundred. The rear route meant certain death on its own. He might survive the hundred-foot drop to his right if he could break his fall on the way down by striking the branches of another tree jutting from the bottom. But he’d be unlikely to do so without breaking one, or both, of his legs or sustaining other injuries that would leave him helpless.

And that would mean it would only be a matter of time before the men coming toward him reached where he was now, looked down on him, then riddled his broken body with more of their 7.62 mm bullets.

The roar of rounds coming his way continued to grow in volume, and the Executioner knew he had only seconds to choose his battle plan. The way he saw it, there was only one possibility of escape, and the odds against his surviving it were slim.

Rising to his feet inside the fog that surrounded him, Bolan held the trigger back on the Beretta 93-R, sending 3-round bursts at four men who were leading a pack of about two dozen men. Twelve rounds spit from his machine pistol. And each burst took out one of the four men. A return shot clipped through the strange fog and skimmed over his shoulder, taking with it the epaulet on the shoulder of his camouflage BDU blouse but leaving his flesh unscathed. The final three rounds from the Beretta’s magazine all found a home in the chest of a seemingly faceless man a few yards behind the leaders.

Instead of retreating or taking cover, the rest of the two dozen men began to sprint as best they could across the rocky surface of the mountainside. The fog had moved up with the Executioner, and he was surprised to see that none of the enemy coming toward him seemed to have faces. But they all had AK-47s, and all of them were firing on full-auto as they drew ever closer.

Bolan dropped the empty Beretta 93-R and drew the mammoth .44 Magnum Desert Eagle from his hip. Even under the incredible pressure of almost certain death, he took his time, firing a huge .44 at each man as he came, and watching them fall through the hazy mist even as he swung the barrel toward the next. In a few seconds, eight more of the advancing men lay dead on the ground.

But now the Desert Eagle, too, was empty of rounds.

From inside the front right pocket of his BDU blouse, Bolan retrieved the tiny North American Arms 5-shot .22 Magnum Pug minirevolver. So small he could cover it with his palm, he thumbed back the hammer on the single-action wheel gun and pulled the trigger even as his left hand drew the Cold Steel Espada Knife and snagged the opening hook on the pocket of his pants. As small as the Pug might be, the Espada folding knife—based on the ancient Spanish Navaja design—was large, and a second later the 7.5-inch steel blade snapped into place.

The Executioner knew his efforts now would almost certainly be fruitless. But he wasn’t the sort of man to surrender, or go down without a fight. So he raised the minirevolver and pointed it at the chest of another of the faceless attackers as they continued their charge forward through the weird mist.

* * *

BOLAN WAS ABOUT TO FIRE again when the phone on the nightstand next to his bed suddenly rang.

The soldier’s eyelids flipped open and the mist that had clouded his vision was suddenly gone. So was the mountain range. And so were the men trying to kill him. He glanced down at his empty hands—to his sides, on the bed—then rose to a sitting position and looked across the bedroom toward the desk against the wall.

All his guns, their holsters and the Cold Steel Espada Knife rested on the desktop. And all of them, he knew, were fully loaded.

The phone rang once more and the Executioner grabbed it. As he lifted the receiver, he glanced at his watch. He had been asleep for only three hours after returning to Stony Man Farm after a long mission in Libya. But three hours was more rest than he often got, so he counted himself lucky as he raised the phone to his ear and answered with his usual mission code name.

Striker, Bolan said.

Sorry to interrupt your beauty rest. It was the voice of Hal Brognola, director of the Sensitive Operations Group, based at Stony Man Farm on the other end. And the soldier knew the man was calling from an office on the first floor of the Farm’s main house.

I’m not sure I’d call it restful, Bolan answered. In fact, your call might just have saved my life.

There was a short pause on the other end. Then Brognola said, Nightmare?

No, Bolan said. Just a pretty average dream.

Well, for anyone else it would be a nightmare.

Maybe, Bolan said. So what’s on your mind?

How soon can you be in the War Room? the big Fed asked.

As soon as you need me, Bolan answered. If we’ve got time, I could use a quick shower and shave.

We’ve got that much time, Brognola said. But not much more. Shall we say ten minutes?

You’re on, Bolan said and hung up.

Five minutes later, the Executioner stepped out of the shower and grabbed a towel. He had shaved using a mirror mounted on the tile inside the stall as the hot water blasted into his back, driving a little of the soreness out of his muscles. The mission in Libya had been long and grueling. But as he drew the towel across his once-again-smooth face, he felt as good as most men feel after ten hours of sleep.

Bolan finished drying himself, combed his hair, then left the bathroom and returned to the bedroom. Realizing he hadn’t brought any clean clothing into the room with him, he opened the closet door and looked up at the shelf over the empty hangers. Several stacks of freshly cleaned blacksuits—the formfitting, stretchy, multipocketed and many-featured suits he often used in battle were neatly folded.

The soldier reached up for one, then donned it.

The Beretta’s shoulder rig went over the Executioner’s arms. The Kydex hip holster for the Desert Eagle was threaded onto a nylon web belt that held extra .44 Magnum magazines, and the NAA Pug minirevolver hide out and Cold Steel folding knife went into the slit pockets of the blacksuit. As soon as he was dressed, Bolan stepped out of the bedroom and headed for the elevator at the end of the hall.

He entered the Stony Man Farm War Room with two minutes of his ten-minute deadline to spare.

* * *

STONY MAN FARM was like no other installation in the world, known only to the men and women who worked out of the top-secret counterterrorism base, the President of the United States himself and a select few others. On the rare occasions when it became necessary for outsiders to visit the farm, they were blindfolded and flown in by either Jack Grimaldi—Stony Man’s number-one pilot—Charlie